Caroline: Since you’re listening to this podcast, I feel fairly confident in saying that you think Agatha Christie wrote some good books. There’s a high probability that you decided to listen to me talking about detective fiction because you have, at some point, enjoyed a novel by the so called Queen of Crime.
But just because we enjoy her fiction doesn’t necessarily mean that Agatha Christie deserves to be crowned queen of the literary pantheon. In fact, it’s become a commonplace to say that although Christie’s plots are second to none, her prose and dialogue leaves a lot to be desired. Leaden, humdrum, repetitive, samey — these are all words I’ve heard used to describe it.
I don’t want to just acquiesce to the prevailing view on this, though. Which is why, today, I’m going to investigate whether Agatha Christie is really a good writer.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
I’ve been thinking about this question for a long time, as you might imagine, but there are two pieces of writing specifically that prompted me to go deeper into the issue. The first is an article by John Lanchester titled “The Case of Agatha Christie”, published in the London Review of Books in December 2018.
It’s a long essay — nearly 6,000 words long — but the main thing you need to know about it is that from the start, Lanchester sets out his baseline assumption that Agatha Christie was not a good writer, and that he’s not the only person who thinks this.
“It’s not as if anyone, even her hardest-core fans, ever makes any claims for Christie as a writer per se,” he says near the beginning of the article. He continues: “Her prose is flat and functional, her characters on a spectrum between types, stereotypes and caricatures; so, you might well ask, what’s to like?” It’s worth reading this in full, of course, and I’ll link to it in the episode description, but suffice to say here that he goes on to find plenty of things to like about Agatha Christie’s work, but her actual writing isn’t among them. Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers are much better writers in a purely literary sense, he feels, even if they lack the certain je ne sais quoi that drives Christie’s popularity.
That’s the first data point. The second is a new introduction to a book of essays about Agatha Christie titled Agatha Christie: First Lady of Crime, which was first published in 1977 and edited by the writer HRF Keating. For the 2020 edition, Sophie Hannah wrote a foreword in which she explores why Christie is so easily and comprehensively written off as a writer in the purest sense of the word, when she (Sophie) finds the books to be full of depth and nuance and fascinating character work. It isn’t written as a rebuttal to John Lanchester, but it works very well in dialogue with his essay, since both critics address similar points from their opposite positions.
I found myself fascinated by Sophie’s insistence on claiming Agatha Christie as a literary genius. Sophie writes the official Poirot continuation novels, so she is both in a very good position to know Christie’s work well, and to be compared to it by readers of her own books that are set in the same universe and around one of Christie’s characters. It’s a brave writer who follows in the footsteps of a genius.
Sophie: Everyone in the world probably who’s heard of me — that’d be one of the first things they’d think — she’s a massive Agatha Christie fan.
Caroline: This is… Sophie Hannah, who was kind enough to come on the podcast and explain why she thinks Agatha Christie is too often unfairly written off as a literary writer.
Sophie: In the sort of world at large and in the literary world at large, there’s just a lot of people who sort of say, oh yes, well, she’s obviously brilliant at plotting and she’s obviously brilliant at storytelling, but there’s often a, but, and what interests me most is when that, but comes from people who actually love the books.
Caroline: This does come with a caveat, by the way — not everybody thinks like this.
Sophie: I have met other fans who are as passionate about Christie as I am, and they don’t do that. So they don’t praise Christie and then add a caveat. People like Dr. Mark Aldridge who wrote the brilliant book about Agatha Christie’s screen adaptations and he’s got a new book out about Poirot. He will happily admit that Agatha Christie’s a genius without a caveat. So, you know, there’s lots of, lots of superfans who do.
Caroline: Sophie’s ideas about this crystallised, she says, when she was on a panel at a literary event.
Sophie: So I’ve done lots of panels with other writers who have been chosen because they love Agatha Christie, so that they’re known to be fans, but even they, when asked questions, say everyone agrees don’t they that Christie’s a brilliant plotter, but she’s not very good. You know, her characters are a bit wooden or her prose style is a bit simple. I’ve heard a lot of self-declared Agatha Christie fans agree with those criticisms. And in particular there was one panel where everybody seemed to be saying, oh yes, well, of course she’s not got a great literary style, she’s not a great prose stylist. She’s not a great literary genius, but her plots and her stories are more ingenious than anyone else’s. And I just think that’s really interesting because, well, firstly, I don’t think it’s true. I think Agatha does characterization brilliantly. She does it in her own way.
It’s usually the case that in an Agatha Christie novel, what takes up most of the page space looks like plot. So if you just sort of flick through, you might see a conversation about Poirot or Miss Marple saying, so where were you on the night of whatever. And it looks like lots of plot is happening, but that doesn’t mean that characterization is not well handled in her books.
A good analogy, I think is the paintings of LS Lowry, you know, those sorts of matchstick men. So if someone were to criticize Lowry for not drawing or for not painting people properly, in my opinion, that would be silly. You don’t look at Lowry paintings and go, oh, he can’t depict people just because he doesn’t depict them in the way that Gainsborough depicted them.
So I think personally, that Agatha Christie conveys character and all kinds of layers of knowledge and wisdom about human nature extremely well. She just does it in a particular Christie ish way.
Caroline: What if the supposed failings of Christie’s writing, such as flat characters and less than sparkling dialogue, were actually all part of how she made her much lauded plots so good?
Sophie: People talk about her characters sometimes being two dimensional or some people say, oh yeah, the characters are very two dimensional, but that is actually a necessity of the genre because we see the characters initially as they present to our protagonist or our detective. And of course they’re presenting in a surface way because one of them is going to turn out to be hiding the secret that they’re the murderer. Others of them are going to turn out to be hiding the secret that they’re a jewel thief.
For example, there’s lots of jewel thieves running around and the ones who aren’t hiding anything sort of criminal might be hiding something else, something emotional. And so for a murder mystery to work in the best way that it possibly can, the characters need to be presenting at first their surface level.
And then we get to know about the third diamond and the deeper stuff about the characters as the book goes on. So I think, you know, when people say, oh, she’s not a great prose stylist or her characterization really is very basic, I just think they’re wrong.
Caroline: You can tell Sophie’s got the mind of a detective as well as that of a writer, though, because her next move was to wonder why people think this about Christie.
Sophie: It started to really puzzle me why this was just something that was said all over the place. And I knew it wasn’t true. I mean, in terms of actual prose style, it’s brilliantly simple and economical. It’s hugely elegant. It’s witty. It’s crisp. I do think she’s a great prose stylist. I think she is up there with the literary greats in every way, on every level.
She’s up there with Dickens and Virginia Woolf and all those people. And she has her own inimitable style just as they all do. And it’s a different style for each of them. So the mystery and the puzzle for me. Why does so many other people, even people who enjoy her novels not see that this is obviously the case.
And then the answer to that question just struck me while I was sitting doing this panel at this festival. And I thought, oh yeah, I know what it is. They think it, because they know that lots of other people think it. And so they assume it’s probably true. No, I don’t, I can’t remember whether it’s Poirot or Miss Marple that talks about, you know, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, but this seems like a perfect example of that, because once you really think about it, you think, of course, most people don’t care enough about really enjoyable crime novels.
I mean, they might read them and love them, but they don’t care enough about defending their honour or reputation to be bothered, to query this massively. Sort of you know, this, this massive sort of body of received lack of wisdom, you know, so if you’ve heard hundreds of people and read things and seeing things, and you just pick up ideas from the ether, don’t, you know, the society you live in and the ideas out there in the ether about Agatha Christie for a lot of people is she’s hugely talented at plotting. But she’s not really a great writer. And because the idea is out there in the ether, people pick it up.
Caroline: One of the biggest tells that there’s more to Christie than just plot, Sophie points out, is that we don’t just read her mysteries to find out what happened. As someone is pretty much always rereading at least one of her books, I found this quite persuasive.
Sophie: But there’s part of me that thinks it would be nice if people could just actually. Look at the received wisdom received lack of wisdom, then actually read few Christie novels and think is this true?
And can I find any evidence in this Christie novel I’m reading, but it might not be true because the minute you read it from that. You find all the evidence that she’s a brilliant writer and the most powerful piece of evidence of all, is that her novels, even when you know exactly who did it and why, and you’ve read every clue 50 times before her novels are still amazingly pleasurable and enlightening and entertaining to read.
And she’s one of the few crime writers who I, you know, I I’m just about to reread Cards on the Table. I know the entire plot, like the back of my hand, but I’m still going to thoroughly enjoy that experience because there’s so much richness on every page and most crime level, even most brilliant crime novels that I love.
I wouldn’t read them again because the main thing about them is finding out the solution to the mystery. So I mean that from my own sort of personal experience, and that is the overwhelming bit of evidence that she is great.
After the break: maybe we’re all just jealous?
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Caroline: You might be wondering why this matters at all. It’s not as if Agatha Christie is struggling to reach readers. She’s still selling millions of copies of her books and her stories are perpetually being readapted for the screen. But I think there is some point to clarifying whether we think all of this is being done in service of something with true literary merit, or if it’s all just an exercise in providing entertainment for the lowest common denominator. Here’s Sophie again.
Sophie: I don’t think it matters for her because she is the best crime writer who’s ever lived. She sells billions of books. So books are still selling amazingly well, TV and fill out film adaptations of her work is still happening. Like she’s doing absolutely brilliantly. I think it matters. You know, put it this way.
I would not want to be someone who thought or believed anything just because everyone else believed it. Or the majority of people believe it. So I. It may be, doesn’t matter. Like if you’re someone who’s happy to just read Christie novels and think, oh, that was a bit of enjoyable, you know, trashy crime fiction.
That isn’t proper lecture. If literature don’t mind thinking about, and you can still get enjoyment from it, then you can think whatever you want.
Caroline: This idea that there’s “proper” literature and then the rest is quite corrosive and frankly, snobby, and a big reason why these preconceptions about Agatha Christie — one of the best known genre writers in the world — are worth challenging. It’s about establishing the value of detective fiction in general, as well as her books in particular.
Sophie: So, you know, If people read a lot of detective fiction and they see that they’re in a society that reads a lot of detective fiction and they hear most people going, oh yeah, it’s just a bit of airport, trashy reading. I’ll read a proper book next, meaning, you know, a Booker prize winner. If they see that that’s how everyone’s carrying on, then it’s just much easier to fall into that same pattern.
And they probably fear that, that if they said, hold on a minute, what if there’s like a, for Christie novel is actually better than. Well, the Christie book that you’re, that you’re reading on a literary level they would fear that if they said that other people would think they were crazy or stupid, in fact, some of the most intelligent, groundbreaking forward thinking people in the history of the world.
Have been thought crazy or stupid when they put forward their idea, which is in fact more intelligent than the idea that disagreeing with that. So I think a lot of it is that it’s not just Kristi it’s everything. People think what they’re told to think, what they, the other people think about all kinds of literary genres and, you know, works of art.
All the people who, I mean, I can think of one person in particular who I know quite. She absolutely adores crime fiction. It’s almost all she reads. She’s a proper crime fiction addict. Like me, I’m the same, but I am proud of it. And I think crime fiction is as good as any other kind. And I don’t, there isn’t even a single part of my brain that thinks I probably should read some more literary novels.
To me. A novel is a novel. I like the ones with mysteries and those are the ones I read. But this, this person I know, feels terribly guilty. She regards it almost like a vice, like as if she’s got a sort of cocaine habit or something, I’ve read another full thrillers. I really must read a proper book sooner.
She actually says she calls them proper books as opposed to crime novels. So like, that is just a perfect example. Yeah, and she’s an intelligent woman, but she just assumes that if so many people have these kind of hierarchies and rankings and attitudes, then there must be something in it.
Caroline: One facet of this that we haven’t mentioned yet but shouldn’t forget about is just old fashioned jealousy, especially from the kind of literary tastemakers that might look down on genre writing.
Sophie: I also think there’s probably an element, probably an element where people just don’t want to admit that as well as being the best ever at plotting that she might also have been the best ever everything, because then that might upset them in some way.
Like, it’s almost like, I mean, I guess I’m talking mainly about crime writers. Now, you know, if you would, if you were to say she’s the best, she’s the best at plotting. She’s the best at understanding human nature. She’s just the biggest genius the crime writing world’s ever had. I think a lot of crime writers would not want to concede that much because they will, there’s a certain desire to.
And I’m not saying in any, anyone in particular, but in, in the human brain, that’s maybe a bit of a kind of sharpen Freud, a desire to take things away from someone who’s seen to have too much. So she sold billions of copies. She’s made loads of money. She’s still easier to get onto the screen big or small than any other crime writer, as you know, she’s still so popular.
I think frankly, a lot of people, there’s a kind of schadenfreude, a jealousy thing that might prevent a lot of people from going and as well as ah, she is the best. Ah, I mean the other hilarious thing I think is if you’ve been to Greenway her holiday home in Devon, she’s also got the best holiday home out of any writer.
Like I, for me. I’m very happy to just like acknowledge all of this. I’m like, she’s the best plotter. She’s the best writer. She’s the best genius. She’s the best of everything, you know, she’s the most successful and she’s got the best holiday home. Like I’m happy for her to just be the best in every way, but I don’t think a lot of people are.
Caroline: Now, it’s all very well for someone like me to think that Agatha Christie is a truly great writer, because I’m not trying to write new books using her existing characters like Sophie is. I asked whether her belief in Christie’s genius had changed at all since she began her own work on the Poirot continuation novels.
Sophie: Not at all, because one of the things I did, one of the decisions I made very early on when I knew I was going to be writing the continuation novel was I decided to introduce a new character and narrator and sidekick for Poirot. So my character Inspector Edward Catchpool, who is the narrator of all four of my Poirot novels so far.
He is a new character that I’ve invented and for the purposes of my Poirot novels, he is Poirot’s sidekick. So what I try to do is write the best possible account of solving a mystery with Poirot that Catchpool could write and Catchpool is a very intelligent, sensitive police officer. But, I mean, he’s not a crime writer.
So when I’m thinking, how can Catchpool write a brilliant account of how we solve this case with Poirot, then I’m not at the same time thinking it’s a bit of a shame that Catchpool’s not as good a writer as Agatha Christie, and because the plot and the story is so important. I just trust that if I’ve thought of a good enough story and good enough characters and Catchpool’s a good writer. Then I think the book’s going to be absolutely fine. And I mean, I’m really, I have my favorites among my Poirot novels, but in particular, the latest one, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, I mean, of course it’s not Murder On The Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but I really love it. I really think that Catchpool did an amazing job of writing a gripping, entertaining mystery story.
I think we all experience that impulse to downplay what we really, really like. Earnest enthusiasm isn’t very cool. We instinctively want to go along with the idea that if something is very popular, it probably can’t also be of great lasting value. But since talking to Sophie every time I have these feelings I’ve been trying to examine why they’re there, and if they match up with what I actually think about my favourite books, especially the ones that I reread all the time.
Is Agatha Christie a great writer? Well, if she isn’t, then I don’t know who is.
This episode was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Many thanks to my guest Sophie Hannah — you can find all four of her Poirot continuation novels at all good booksellers and via the links at sophiehannah.com. Links to all the books and sources mentioned are in the description text for this episode and at shedunnitshow.com/isagathachristiegood. I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
If you’d like to support the podcast’s continued existence and independence, become a paying member of the Shedunnit Book Club and get access to two bonus episodes a month and the reading community. Sign up at shedunnitbookclub.com/join.
Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin. The podcast’s advertising partner is Multitude.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another episode.